It may seem odd to include a message on imitation in a series of sermons on marriage, but it is actually a very important aspect of marriage. In fact, it is so important to godliness in marriage that the world has an entire framework of “countermeasures” arraigned against it, so that most of our prejudices are firmly set against obedience.
Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour (Eph. 5:1-2)
I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me (1 Cor. 4:14-16).
Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1)
The word that is translated here as follower is the Greek word mimetes, which means imitator. This means that when you learn by imitation you do what the other is doing. When you learn in the textbook way, you do what the other is saying or writing. There is a place for this, but we don’t need to make room for it. We all know to do this. We do need to make room for what is required of us in our texts. In Ephesians, we are told to imitate God in the same way that dear children imitate their parents (v. 1). And that means that we are to walk in love sacrificially (v. 2). Well, yes, someone might say, but this is imitation of God. But this imitation of God is compared to the imitation that children render to parents. This is a design feature. We are not told to avoid imitating mere mortals; we are called to it. In 1 Cor. 4, the apostle beseeches his Corinthian converts to imitate him (v. 16). Later in the book, he says that he imitates Christ, and he urges the Corinthians to imitate him in his imitation (v. 1).
The Greek word for this imitation is where we get our word mimic. This is the difference between someone who is fluent in a language and someone who has just memorized the paradigms. God has created us to learn this way. You can see it with an adoring two-year-old sister following her masterful four-year-old brother around. What he says, she says, a milli-second later. Monkey see, monkey do. This seems like mindless copying, but it is the foundation of all creaturely wisdom.
The elders of the church are told not to be lords over God’s heritage, but rather to be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). St. Paul tells Timothy to set his life, in word, in love, in spirit, in faith, and in purity, as an example to the believers (1 Tim. 4:12). The people of God are told to consider the outcome of the way of life that is set by the leaders of the church (Heb. 13:7, 17). Now what do you do with examples? You imitate them. Not only is imitation a godly thing (as defined this way), but it is the way to godliness.
In Scripture, learning is profoundly incarnational. But we have been taught that knowledge is abstract and disembodied. When people begin to imitate their parents and their elders, it is not long before the charges of “mind-control” and “cult” begin to fly. Part of the godly fruit of incarnational imitation is like-mindedness, which the Bible praises in a number of places (Rom. 15:5-6; Phil. 2:2, 20), and which our modern world condemns (even some Christian portions of it). You have to be an individual. You have to think for yourself. You must not imitate others, period. But the end result of this vain exercise (throwing rocks at the moon) does not eliminate imitation. How could it? What it guarantees is the imitation of fools.
APPLICATIONS TO MARRIAGE:
Given the fact that God has made the world in this way, and given that imitation is built into all authority relationships (God/man, parents/children, elders/congregation), and given that marriage is a relationship where husband and wife are expressly told to model their relationship after Christ and the church, what follows?
Because of the closeness of marriage, imitation works both ways. Husbands learn from their wives by imitation, and wives learn from their husbands by imitation. But the initiative and fundamental responsibility lies with the husband. He should be able to say to his wife, with a straight face, “I want you to imitate me in this.” Now there are two basic reasons why these words stick in our throats. The first is the propaganda of modernity, that we have already addressed. We think about saying something like that, and our minds fill up with imaginary scenarios. “Who do you think you are?” But humility does not mean adopting an aw, shucks posture. Real humility is doing what God says to do.
But the second reason why these words stick in a husband’s throat is that these words condemn us. Imitation is already occurring. If husbands are selfish and sinful, then that is the closest, living model that his wife has to imitate. If she resists that, as she should, she is nevertheless swimming against the current—the current that embodied disobedience establishes in every home.
No man has the authority to grant permission where God has denied it. But rebellious men attempt it nonetheless. And others think they have received that permission when they have not. This accounts for the state of many marriages, and many families. The husband and father teaches through the example of his entire demeanor. That demeanor is potent, and will result in imitation down to the bone, including what he thought of as secret sins.
But, by the grace of God, example is potent in the other direction as well.